The Heritage of our Medical Profession

Photo of a nurse and mother and baby

© Image reproduced courtesy of the RCM [Archive Reference: RCM/PH7/2/3]

The medical profession in the UK is wide and varied, from physicians to surgeons, doctors to nurses, obstetricians to midwives, and psychiatrists to anaesthetists, to name just a few. The network of medical colleges and associations supporting these professionals have had a hand in shaping the face of the health service, making a difference to patient care through research and standards and providing frameworks for medical education and professional development.

The archive collections held within the Royal Medical Colleges are varied and diverse, and recent years have seen steady progress on making descriptions to these collections available to researchers. Collaboration between the Colleges, so often seen with medical initiatives and consultation papers, has been instrumental in highlighting these resources, and descriptions for the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, are now available for searching on the Archives Hub with more colleges being added soon.

Royal College of Surgeons of England

Drawing of a hand by Joseph Lister

© Image courtesy of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, a drawing by Sir Joseph Lister

Encapsulating over two hundred years of advances in surgery, the archives at the Royal College of Surgeons of England offer a wealth of research opportunities. The archives document all areas of College business including training, research, examinations, professional standards and regulation, membership and fellowship, the Hunterian Museum, College publications, and the College’s fundraising, buildings, finances and personnel. The papers display the inner workings of the College and its initiatives to support and develop the surgical profession. Cataloguing of the College archives began in 2010 and is expected to be complete by 2015 with new records being added daily to the online catalogue.

The archives also hold a diverse range of archive and manuscript collections that have been acquired since the foundation of the College, in 1800. These relate to medicine and surgery from the 16th to the 20th centuries. These collections include the personal papers and case notes of surgeons, a small number of hospital records, collections of correspondence, and a variety of individual items including diaries, photograph albums, lecture notes, drawings and even recipe books. The archives hold the professional and personal papers of eminent surgeons including John Hunter, Astley Paston Cooper, Joseph Lister and Berkeley Moynihan. As well as the papers of individuals, these deposited collections also contain the records of hospitals such as the London Lock Hospital, where venereal diseases were treated, including graphic colour drawings of 19th and 20th-century patients showing their symptoms. These unique collections are an invaluable resource shedding light on the everyday activities and education of surgeons, as well as on evolutions in surgery.

RCSE Archives Website:

Browse the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons of England on the Archives Hub.

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists


Image of using forceps to deliver a baby

© Images courtesy of RCOG. ‘A sett of anatomical tables...’ by William Smellie published in 1754 (RCOG Library)

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists holds a unique heritage collection relating to the history of women’s health, covering the development of the College, the specialty and of women’s health in general.
The Library Collection is comprised of books, reports and journals, together with an active research service and antique obstetric and gynaecological books dating from 1478, including the obstetric atlases of Smellie and Hunter.

The Archive Collection contains unpublished records of the founding of the College in 1929 and College records including special reports, surveys and projects conducted or supported by the RCOG relating to the specialty and women’s health. For example, the records cover the College’s involvement in investigations into maternal mortality, wartime maternity services, maternity hospital reporting, and training from the publication of the Goodenough Report during the 1940s to current day developments. The photograph collection includes images of College Officers, Presidents, Honorary Fellows and medics associated with the specialty (below is an image of Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards at the press conference for the first IVF baby, 1979), while the archive special collections contain deposited material from Fellows such as William Blair-Bell, William Fletcher Shaw,
Miles Harris Phillips, John Chassar Moir, Bethel Solomons and Donald Roy, and specialist societies such as the Gynaecological Visiting Society, the Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club, the Royal Maternity Charity, and the Fothergill Society.

The Museum Collection includes obstetric, midwifery, surgical, and gynaecological instruments: a semi-permanent exhibition of objects, together with items from the library and archive collections, has also been mounted in the Education Centre of the College. This interactive display, which includes touch screens, video clips, and audio, takes the visitor through five hundred years of innovation in the specialty.

RCOG Information Services Website:

Browse the collections of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists on the Archives Hub.

The Royal College of Midwives

Photo of forceps

© Images courtesy of RCOG. Chamberlen forceps held in the RCOG Museum

This unique and historically important collection, dating from the foundation of the organisation formally known as the Midwives Institute in 1881 to the present day, comprises primarily committee minutes and reports, correspondence and papers of the College President and General Secretary, scrapbooks, photographs and printed material. It provides a fascinating insight into not only the art of midwifery, but the campaign for the registration, training and education of midwives, women’s health, childbirth, pregnancy, contraception and abortion.

As well as material that records the activities and prominent individuals of the organisation, the collection also includes a diverse range of deposited papers and artefacts, such as notebooks, diaries, case registers, uniforms, badges and medical instruments, which have the potential to reveal the personal stories and experiences of midwives that until now have remained relatively untold.

The library and archives of the Royal College of Midwives are now held at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and this collaboration between the two colleges has brought together two complimentary collections as well as creating an unparalleled centre for research into the history and current practice surrounding women’s healthcare.

Collection descriptions on the Archives Hub

The Royal College of Nursing


The RCN Archives contain some of the most important collections dedicated to the history of the nursing profession in the UK. The majority of records relate to the work and history of the Royal College of Nursing, and include images, recordings and objects. With a remit to promote the study of nursing history more widely, the RCN also holds a large personal papers collection donated over the years by nurses and their families including photographs, badges, albums, lecture notes, certificates and other keepsakes. Records of other nursing organisations such as the QNI Scotland records and the Commonwealth Nurses Federation are complemented by copies of published material from GNC, CMB, ENB, ICN, and UKCC, as well as the RCN journal.

The RCN oral history collection contains over 400 nurses talking about all aspects of healthcare in the UK and overseas including wartime, district nursing, nursing leaders and a wide range of social history topics, and access to these in Edinburgh and at HQ in London.

The RCN are currently planning a new 'history of nursing centre' in London HQ as part of current refurbishment of the library space. When it opens in 2013 it will have an on-site archivist and a drop in centre housing the genealogy resources, including State Registers and Rolls for England & Wales, Scotland, some Ireland and Northern Ireland and Burdett's Directories.

RCN Archives Website:

The Royal Society of Medicine

Drawing of the muscular anatomy of a human being

© Images courtesy of RSM. Tertia musculorum tabula.

The Royal Society of Medicine was founded in 1805 to create a more cohesive environment in which physicians and surgeons could work together. This was mainly achieved through the establishment of a multi-disciplinary library and the presentation of research papers. Today this library has developed into one of the largest postgraduate biomedical collections in Europe, totalling 600,000 volumes, including around 45,000 rare books and manuscripts. Noteworthy research papers presented at meetings have been included in our Society’s publication since 1809.

The archive collection consists of the administrative records created by the RSM and its predecessor bodies dating back to 1805. These include membership papers, council and general minutes, correspondence, deeds, charters and bye-laws. Between 1907 and 1909 seventeen specialist medical societies joined the RSM including learned bodies such as the Obstetrical Society of London (1858-1907) and the Pathological Society of London (1846-1907). These societies brought with them diverse and fascinating collections which are now amalgamated with our own.

Items from all these collections are displayed throughout the RSM and anyone can apply to consult the archives.

RSM Archives Website:

Drawing of a diseased kidney

© Images courtesy of RSM. Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, 1859 vol.2. Brights Disease of the Kidneys.

Further resources

The Royal College of Physicians: an almost complete record of its activities since its foundation in 1518; from its founding charter to 20th century reports on the effects of smoking, the Archive contains a wealth of material on medical advances, knowledge and tradition.

The Royal College of General Practitioners: The history of the College can be traced through the College archives, which reveal a fascinating account of the struggle to establish both the College in 1952 and the modern discipline of general practice or primary care. From its earliest days, the College was responsible for far-reaching initiatives such as vocational training and continuing professional development, improvements in practice management and the quality of patient care. The Research committee under the energetic chairmanship of Robin Pinsent supported a range of innovative research projects, including early studies of childhood asthma, measles and major national morbidity surveys. The archives are also particularly strong in the history of the College's relationship with practitioners and institutions across the world.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists: founded in 1841 as the Association of Medical Officers of Asylums and Hospitals for the Insane, the Association changed its name to the Medico-Psychological Association in 1865 and to the Medico Psychological Association of Great Britain and Ireland in 1887. In 1926 it received a royal charter and thus became the Royal Medico Psychological Association and in 1971 it changed its status to that of a medical royal college.

Photo of the Epidemiology Society Medal

© Images courtesy of RSM. Epidemiological Society of Great Britain Medal.


If you are interested in finding secondary source material on this topic then you can search Copac for related materials. Copac includes the catalogues of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, Royal College of Surgeons of England and the Wellcome Library. It also includes the large medical collections from: University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, Imperial College London, King's College London (KCL), The University of Manchester and the University of Sheffield to name but a few.